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Mourning Becomes Electra

Eugene O'Neill

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Discuss the role of the Chantyman in Act IV of "The Hunted."

O'Neill considered Act IV of "The Hunted" as the "center of the whole work." This act moves the audience from its principal locale of the Mannon house to an East Boston harbor of the Chantyman. Lest the Chantyman appear merely "colorful" or a means of providing one of Mourning's few moments of comic relief, we should consider the scene within the context of O'Neill's oeuvre.

Act IV returns to the mood and manner of O'Neill's early sea plays, with the same exacting detail in setting, costume, and set design, but in a more melancholic or nostalgic mode. The drunken Chantyman appears as a figure of his erstwhile poet-heroes, the troubadour-of-the sea. Here, however, O'Neill's former protagonist appears old, useless, and marginal to the tragedy. The Chantyman sings a chorus of "Shenandoah," drunkenly laments the theft of his cash, and brags of his ability to bring a crew into working order with his singing. He laments the coming of steam to ships and the death of the old days. As Bogard notes, the "exit of the chantyman is the last glimpse O'Neill was to give his audiences of the protected children of the sea."

The Chantyman is also a prophetic figure, speaking portentously of Lincoln and Mannon's deaths and lugubriously disappearing into the night with the dirge "Hanging Johnny" on his lips. Its lyrics oppressively foreshadow the death to come: "They says I hangs for money/ Oh, hang, boys, hang They say I hanged my mother/ Oh hang, boys, hang!"

Compare and contrast Orin and Lavinia's fantasies of the native. What is their relation to the play's fantasies of gender?

Living out the last hopes of Brant and Christine, Orin and Lavinia flee East upon the former pair's death. While in transit, they stop for a month at Brant's legendary South Sea Islands, the land the lovers imagined as their Eden-like haven.

Both Orin and Lavinia cast the Blessed Islands as the setting of Lavinia's metamorphosis into the Mother though imagine this metamorphosis in almost diametrically opposite ways. Both their fantasies revolve around the figure of the native. For the fiendish Orin, consorting with the native means Lavinia's sexual and racial degradation. As he tells Peter, a month longer on the Islands and Lavinia would have become a veritable pagan, dancing nude with their beautiful men under the palm trees. Orin quivers with jealousy at the specter of the native's sexual prowess. He rescues his sister in fear that they can provide her with what he cannot.

In contrast, Lavinia emphasizes the Islands' innocence. There, among their simple, docile people, she came to love and beauty anew, forgetting all the death behind her. Indeed, Lavinia's natives appear almost free of sexuality altogether. For example, note her account of the chaste kiss with Avahanni in Act IV.

These projective fantasies are decidedly narcissistic, splitting of the native into its hyper-idealized and degraded, good and bad forms. Notably Mourning maps these fantasies onto those of gender, the image of the pure or lascivious native fitting easily with that of the woman as virgin or whore.

Consider the ways Ezra Mannon makes his presence felt in the absence of his person. How does he do so? What does he demand of those under his influence?

We first encounter Mannon in the figure of the ominous portrait hanging in his study. Here, as throughout the trilogy, Ezra, dressed in his judge's robes, appears as a symbol of the law. Ezra calls the living to judgment for their crimes. These crimes include the players' illicit, incestuous loves, their betrayals, and the acts of murder incurred in bitter and violent rivalries.

Ezra's is far more the figure for the law in his symbolic form than in his person—the person of a broken, bitter, ruined husband. Before and after his death, Ezra will appear most authoritatively in his symbolic capacity. The portrait is the clearest example. To a great extent, Ezra assumes this symbolic capacity in life and perhaps at the expense of his person. His mannerisms suggest the unyielding statue-like poses of military heroes. To Christine, he imagines himself as a statue of a great man standing in a square, a man who, as a result has become numb to his own heart.

Ultimately Ezra will come to exert his influence most powerfully in the total absence of his person. Upon his death, his various images will relentlessly haunt and condemn his family from beyond the grave. Thus, for example, Lavinia will constantly invoke his name and voice and with it the weight of his authority, Christine will hear herself condemned by his corpse, and onward.

Suggested Essay Topics

Discuss the role of the Mannon house. Make sure to consider its primary metaphors—for example, the "whited sepulcher," and the incongruous mask.

What is the significance of the Blessed Islands? Compare and contrast the ways in which at least two different characters imagine them.

Discuss O'Neill's use of the double. How does O'Neill produce relationships of doubling. Consider, for example, costume, recurring motifs in dialogue, and correspondence between persons and things. What is the relationship between doubling and rivalry?

What is the significance of Seth's recurring sea chanty, "Shenandoah." Consider not only its lyrics, but also the logic of its apparition in the play.

Discuss O'Neill's use of the Civil War as backdrop for the trilogy. How does the war figure within the Mannon family drama?

What is the function of gossip in the trilogy? Discuss in particular the function of the various choruses of townsfolk.

Discuss the role of Fate in the trilogy. When does Fate appear to make itself felt? Why?

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